Applying Pragmatism to Public Budgeting and Financial Management
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Pragmatism is a philosophy that emphasizes learning through action and building a knowledge base from experience and reflection. It is a potentially compelling approach for public budgeting and financial management. The largely normative theories of public finance, public financial management and public budgeting are examined and critiqued. We do not seek to abandon these valuable contributions to practice, however they often fail to describe and explain the practices of the field. In some cases, the norms prescribed may not be shared by government officials and citizens, and thus the management or policy prescription become unhelpful. We believe theory should guide practice, but theory must also be informed by practice. We seek to establish a better basis to understand the structure and evolution of government budgeting and finance, and to help practitioners face difficult situations that call for workable solutions. The classical pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey, William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Jane Addams is presented and applied to the theories of public finance, budgeting and financial management. Pragmatism focuses on inquiry and the problematic situation. Theories are viewed as tools to resolve the problematic situation. And, just as there are often many tools used to approach a problematic situation, there are many theories that, like tools or maps, are judged by their usefulness. This orientation makes sense for financial management because like all managers, they are focused on solutions to problems and cannot be wedded to academic theories to guide their action when the elected officials and citizens they serve need a solution.